THERE WAS LITTLE PRESS FANFARE when Najee Ali surrendered in court on August 18. Soon after that, the ex-Crips gang member turned grass-roots leader — loved and hated for pushing human-rights issues and drumming up frequent media coverage — quietly left Los Angeles to begin serving a four-year sentence for witness tampering in Tehachapi State Prison in Kern County.
Longtime friend Marian “Fi Fi” Locke was shocked, particularly since Ali was Locke’s guest at this year’s NAACP Image Awards and never divulged to her that he was going to prison. They spoke the evening of August 17. “I asked him why he hadn’t come to the African Marketplace. He said he was busy with other things,” Locke recalls. She learned of Ali’s incarceration from her mother in Chicago, who read it in the papers.
But the flurry of media coverage two weeks ago missed an underlying tale about the convoluted case against Ali, which reverberates as his supporters and detractors continue to wonder how the well-known civic figure landed in prison.
His downfall began with an alleged 2007 road-rage accident involving his daughter, Jasmin Eskew, 19. According to Eskew’s attorney, Anthony Willoughby, Askew passed four Harley-Davidson bikers on the freeway, who then rode close around her and “flipped her the bird.” Eskew crashed into one biker, Kevin Zeirdon, who suffered abrasions but appeared to be recovered at a pretrial hearing over the summer.
Eskew was charged with attempted murder for running into Zeirdon, but the charges were downscaled to assault with a deadly weapon. (Zeirdon’s wife, Lori, has posted on her Web site, http://socalmom.spaces.live.com, photos of his wounds, updates about his recovery and pictures of him celebrating his birthday on August 23.)
Ali’s ill-fated role in this weird drama began on January 17, 2008, outside a courtroom, where biker witnesses had testified against his daughter. One of the bikers wore a black leather jacket with a patch that read: “I’m having a beautiful day. Watch some bitch fuck it up.” Eskew’s attorney, Willoughby, says he then asked Najee Ali to snap a photograph of the biker, and his jacket, outside the courtroom.
At that point, prosecutors allege that Ali tried to bribe the biker not to testify against his daughter. Ali says he merely begged him for “mercy for my daughter.” But according to prosecutors, Ali told biker Zeirdon that he’d give him “a check for an unspecified amount and a new motorcycle” if Zeirdon would “forget a few things.”
Willoughby scoffs, “The idea of Najee bribing someone when everyone knows he doesn’t have any money is ludicrous. ... What did he offer [the bikers]? That the press would come down and write an article about them?”
TO HIS FRIENDS AND EVEN some of his enemies, it’s easy enough to envision the chatty, effusive activist Ali merely asking for mercy. Seeking “mercy” was, in fact, an Ali catchphrase: In January 2007, Ali went on Fox’s Hannity & Colmes to plead for mercy for Brandy, the pop diva who caused a fatal car crash in 2006, months before his own daughter’s car-crash troubles began. On Fox, Ali managed to convince conservative host Sean Hannity that it was a civil case.
The D.A.’s bribery case against Ali was not reported by Los Angeles media until Ali was about to be sent to Tehachapi prison. The initial Los Angeles Times scoop was filled with holes, and the article set off a confused — and inaccurate — reaction.
Many Ali critics were left believing that Ali was in desperate straits and had fallen into bribery because his daughter’s car crash had resulted in a fatality. It hadn’t. People were confusing Eskew’s minor crash with a fatal crash three weeks later in Upland, which, ironically, killed biker Chris Chavez, one of the four bikers riding with Zeirdon earlier, when Zeirdon was hit by Eskew.
Soon after that, other media stories rushed to paint Ali as a man who seemed to be reeling out of control.
On August 21, the Los Angeles Sentinel ran a front-page story that incorrectly stated that Ali had disrupted a press conference by Los Angeles City Councilman Bernie Parks. (A video later showed it was Parks who tried to speak at a conference arranged by Ali.) The Sentinel article prompted a sympathetic journalist, DeBorah Pryor, who’s never met Ali, to issue a statement, saying, “I am embarrassed, as a journalist, by community newspapers who have chosen to put such an ugly ‘spin’ to [the Ali imprisonment] tragedy.”
The next day, Betty Pleasant, in a column in the Los Angeles Wave, reported that the media silence on Ali’s troubles had been engineered by Ali (full disclosure: this reporter learned of the bribery allegations off the record and did not write about them). But as Pleasant wrote, “There is no way in hell that Najee’s going to prison would not be a major news story.”
Pleasant stated that an e-mail from Ali showed that he feared prosecutors would go harder on his daughter if his alleged bribe attempt hit the newspapers, which might force the D.A. to take a tougher public stance against Askew.
Pleasant quoted Ali’s group e-mail to several acquaintances and reporters, including me: “I trust you with my daughter’s life and ask that you not hurt her or me. So if you’re in the media and on this list of friends, this info is off the record.”
That was an unusual stance for the outspoken Ali. He spoke out against Jesse Jackson’s use of the “N” word, R. Kelly’s dalliances with underaged girls and hate crimes by a group of black teenagers against white teenagers beaten on Halloween 2006 in Long Beach. And Ali tangled with the city’s black old guard, including Congresswoman Maxine Waters and wealthy Sentinel publisher Danny Bakewell Sr.
In recent times, Ali has criticized politicians for refusing to condemn an alleged plot by a Mexican Mafia prison gang to kill blacks — which was how Ali crossed paths with Deputy District Attorney Anthony Manzella, in an article I wrote for City Beat about the Mexican Mafia in March 2008.
Manzella has helped to convict drug smugglers and mafia kingpins and is extensively profiled by author Tony Rafael in The Mexican Mafia. In April, Ali asked me if I had a phone number for Manzella. I contacted Manzella for his permission to provide it, and Manzella replied, “Sure.”
Weeks later, Manzella made a number of statements that appeared to shed light on the attitude toward Ali inside the office of the District Attorney. Manzella called me and stated the following, on the record: “Why did you give my phone number to a convicted felon, black hustler, con man ...” Shouting, he said Ali had asked him “to violate the law, to do something that would cost my badge ... He asked me to speak to the D.A. in his case. I could go to prison for that. ... I can’t help him and he had no right to ask. We’re not allowed to go into each other’s files.”
Manzella said that deputy D.A. Theresa Sullivan wanted to send Ali “to state prison for nine years” for violating the terms of his parole on a hit-and-run case from 2004.
Then, on June 22, at 11 a.m., Manzella e-mailed me: “What was the name of that black guy who conned you into giving him my cell number? I want to make a note of it to see what happens on his parole violation.”
In an e-mail, I pointed out that nobody had “conned” me, but Manzella insisted that I was attempting to change his “perception of the event” — and warned me that, “If this goes much further, I will be compelled to contact the [deputy] D.A. on the case to report Ali’s attempt to improperly influence the outcome of his hearing.” (I reported Manzella’s comments to District Attorney Steve Cooley’s office the next day. I’ve yet to hear back.)
Was Najee Ali, sentenced to four years for bribery, hit harder than the average man by the District Attorney, because of who he is?
Looking back, “The sentence is overkill, to say the least,” argues political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson. “It was driven by who he is, an African-American activist, and politics. Najee made the wrong kind of enemies, and many are politically influential. But the larger point is, [I have] worked with him and known him over 10 years. There were times he was terribly wrong, and times when he was terribly right. But many times he was the only one who was willing to speak out.”